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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Trees Give Meaning to Mystery and Life: Our Interview with Wangari Maathai

by Kate Moos, executive producer

Wangari Maathai at the Svalbard Global Seed VaultWangari Maathai attends the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. On February 26, 2008, the Kenyan environmentalist inaugurated the vault carved into the Arctic permafrost and filled with samples of the world’s most important seeds, providing a Noah’s Ark of food crops in the event of a global catastrophe. (photo: Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)

Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 in recognition of her environmental and human rights work and linking sustainable management of resources, good governance, and equitable distribution with peace. She founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots project that has planted over 45 million trees across Kenya since the 1970s and worked mostly with women.

She is a global leader on issues affecting millions of people in Africa and around the world: desertification, global warming, sustainable ecology, and human rights. Wangari Maathai first appeared on our program in 2006 in "Planting the Future" and has since published her new book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, in 2010. She agreed to respond to some of our questions by email:

You indicate that your religious beliefs were not what motivated you to begin your work with the Green Belt Movement in it earliest days, but that your Christian background and faith have always been important, and that at one time you were surprised that so many people seem not to have spiritual values that shape their thoughts and actions. Those spiritual values seem to inform so much of who you Replenishing the Earth by Wangari Maathaiare and what you do. And in Replenishing the Earth you talk about concern for our “inner ecology” as well as the ecology of the planet. Can you say more about this “inner ecology” and why it matters?

The “inner ecology” is the sense of wonder that we all have, especially as children about the world around us. But it is also the simple fact that our inner constitution is part and parcel of the environment around us. We need air to breathe and water to drink and food to sustain us. The environment that surrounds us directly provides us — physically and spiritually — with its bounty. If the outer environment is sick, then we become sick, not only physically because we are drinking impure water, or breathing polluted air, or not eating enough or consuming poorly produced food, but because we are psychologically and spiritually diminished.

You credit your Catholic education, and the various orders of nuns who were in charge of your education over time, with instilling in you an engagement with the scientific method and the use of critical thinking. Some people might find that surprising. How do you engage with people who insist that religion and science are incompatible and cancel each other out?

Science and religion are both means of discovering deeper truths about the world and the universe and our role within both. Science tries to answer the question “How?” Religion tries to answer the question “Why?” My science teachers did not seem to have a problem between their faith and pursuit of science.

Beyond that, the scientific endeavor and the practice of faith both require discipline, attention, and honesty. I engage with people of faith and scientists regularly, and I have never found it to be a problem. The more we know from science, the more we realize that there is so much we do not know. Faith will not give us the scientific answers and sometimes we have to walk both paths apart. However we believe this earth came to be, abusing it and destroying its ecosystems will ultimately bring about our end as well as destroy what the people of faith call God’s Creation.

Your book has some captivating chapters that focus on trees — what they mean to us both in practical as well as religious and aesthetic terms, and how trees themselves have at various times been seen as centers of sacredness, of our connection to spiritual knowledge and to the divine. If trees disappear from the face of the earth, among the many other serious and life-threatening consequences, we risk losing sacredness itself. You write that the “battle for control over the meaning of the spiritual landscape is an ancient one.” Can you say more about this battle over meaning?

Every society throughout history has sought to interpret the world that surrounds it, and as I say in my book, very many cultures have revered the tree as a symbol of that society’s connection to the Source. I also write in my book that since time immemorial cultures have known that one way to subdue another people is to cut down the sacred groves of that people’s culture — in short, to destroy their beliefs so they will not have anything to fight for.

I was intrigued to read that many temples, churches, and other centers of worship were situated over sacred sites of previous cultures. I had a similar experience in my own culture as Christianity was being introduced and churches were often built at sites of the form of worship that was being replaced.

This suggests to me that trees, groves, and forests have had a profound impact in the spiritual and physical life of peoples. They give meaning to mysteries and to life. They proJust Seeds Poster Celebrating Wangari Maathaivide a connection between a people and their Source, hence their sacredness. In the course of the history of humanity, this largely spiritual landscape has been important to control in order to be able to control the people and their resources.

You point out that religious leaders have a role to play in creating scriptural interpretation and theology that support an essentially ecological point of view. Are faith traditions doing enough in this regard? What more could they do?

I don’t want to single out religious leaders, per se; after all, every one of us has a role to play in fostering healthy ways of healing the earth. And all of us have a set of positive values that could be drawn upon to make our lives more sustainable and conscious. I talk about these values in Replenishing the Earth.

I think I would ask religious traditions to challenge people to find solutions to their problems here on this earth, to acknowledge the wonderful gift of life on a beautiful planet that has been given to us and of which we should be good stewards. Yes, of course, we may wish to look forward to life after death. But when I am asked about heaven, I suggest that it might be green — a place of clean rivers with trees growing on the banks, fresh air, and all of nature’s bounty on display.

And then I ask myself: Why can’t we have such a life on this planet, right now? What is preventing us from cleaning our rivers, breathing fresh air, or growing food in abundance? Why do we have to wait until we get to heaven? The answer is almost always because we, ourselves, are doing things that are making that impossible: cutting down trees so that the rivers are silted with topsoil, producing greenhouse gases through burning fossil fuels, desertifying our pastures, and so on.

That said, the religious leaders have a special role because they are the ones who interpret the holy scriptures to the faithful and they ought to encourage the faithful to be custodians and caretakers of God’s Creation.

Many people become hopeless contemplating the widespread devastation of the earth. How would you counsel them to remain hopeful?

My view has been that one must always be hopeful, because hopelessness is a luxury we cannot afford. In Replenishing, I talk about the story of a hummingbird, which, though small, did what it could to try to put out a fire in the forest by carrying water in its tiny beak. The bigger animals, who were standing by in despair laughed at the hummingbird, taunted him saying: “What good do you think you can do? The fire is too strong and you are too small.” The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”

That’s all I ask of myself, and that’s all I can ask of anyone — that they do the best they can. But they must do — and not stand around waiting for someone else to step forward. So, I would counsel: Whatever you think you can do, start doing it. Whatever it is, commit yourself to it. If you don’t know what it is, then try various things until you discover your passion. Waiting around will only allow the fire to burn; acting together we have a chance to put it out.

But I still pretty much think the same thing that I sometimes said to Kathie back when we were being raped. I can’t quite get over it. If there is a God, how could he let this thing happen to us? We didn’t deserve it.

Kellie Henderson with Her Sister Kathie—Kellie Henderson

This series from The Wichita Eagle will make you question everything about humanity, family, love, neighbors, forgiveness, God. “Promise Not To Tell” documents the perpetual rape of Kellie and Kathie Henderson by their father and two brothers since they were small children, the grace of a Christian family who rescued them and later baptized the assaulting brother in prison, and the shattered worlds these two women are trying to living into and emerge from. A courageous story we’re obligated to read and remember.

by Trent Gilliss, senior producer


Rembrandt’s Divinely Inspired Light: An Unheard Cut from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Rembrandt's 'Portrait of a man'
Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a man, half length, with arms akimbo” (1658) (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

"Sometimes you have to kill your puppies." This is radio producer insider baseball talk for cutting your most precious, beloved bits of tape — the ones that aren’t serving the bigger story you’re trying to tell. Such was the case with Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a masterful storyteller appearing in our recent shows "Pursuing Happiness with the Dalai Lama" and "The Dignity of Difference."

On stage at Emory University with the Dalai Lama this October, Sacks told a story about Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. When the First World War broke out, he was stranded in Switzerland and later made his way to England. There he found solace in the company of Rembrandt’s paintings at The National Gallery in London.

In the clip above (mp3, 01:31) that never made it into the show, Sacks points out that Rembrandt’s subjects weren’t all that beautiful, but his paintings nevertheless reveal their “inner radiance.” He invites us to find beauty where it’s not immediately obvious, and to expand our perceptions of what’s beautiful.

Rabbi Kook commented on Rembrandt’s masterful use of light in this 1935 interview with The Jewish Chronicle:

"I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”

And these lines from Rabbi Sacks’ short reflection about art, timeless beauty, and Rabbi Kook’s particular love of Rembrandt resonate:

"Art which aims to shock, shocks only once, while art which aims at beauty never fades. Art as sensation eventually deadens our sensations, while art as wonder wakens them."


Being Comfortable with the Presence of Mystery
Krista Tippett, host

Who Ordered This?I am so happy to be back in the studio making radio, though these last few months of public conversations about Einstein’s God have been fascinating and energizing. And we continue to build on our cumulative conversation with and about science and the human spirit. I picked up Mario Livio’s book, Is God a Mathematician, sometime last year, and knew I wanted to speak with him.

Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Mario Livio is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.

In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the 19th- and 20th-century Western cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge 21st-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.

For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. And this utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.

Livio’s question, “Is God a mathematician?,” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipotence and omnipotent power” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what one great physicist called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.

Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely Easter conversation with Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. He unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.

I was also interested, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.

And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation (listen above) brings me farther forward on this path.

And I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.


The “Residue” of God’s Image
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

I was lucky enough to have the best seat in the house for Krista’s live interview with Robert Wright (in the very front, manning the video cameras), and this was probably my favorite part of the entire conversation. I was fascinated by Wright’s intersection of belief in physics and belief in God, which he sums up in the afterward to The Evolution of God:

"Maybe the most defensible view — of electrons and of God — is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception."

Reading Wright’s 1988 book, Three Scientists and Their Gods, I saw a role reversal from his conversation with Krista. In 2010, he played the part of the “relentlessly logical” theorist, but in ‘88 he was the questioner who was probing rationalistic scientists like Edward Fredkin and E.O. Wilson with his own challenging questions.

For instance, Wright talks to digital physicist Edward Fredkin about his conception of the universe as a computer. Fredkin seems resistant to any conversation of the theological implications of this idea, but Wright probes him until he gets this response:

“‘I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t have any religious belief. I don’t believe that there is a God. I don’t believe in Christianity or Judaism or anything like that, okay? I’m not an atheist … I’m not an agnostic … I’m just in a simple state. I don’t know what there is or might be. … But on the other hand, what I can say is that it seems likely to me that this particular universe we have is a consequence of something which I would call intelligent.’

'You mean that there's something out there that wanted to get the answer to a question?'

'Yeah. Something that set up the universe to see what would happen? In some way, yes.'”

E. O. Wilson
Edward O. Wilson (photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Wright challenges sociobiologist E. O. Wilson as well, asking:

“‘The knowledge that we are all related to bacteria makes it no easier to swallow the harsh facts of hard work, brief retirement, and death. How can scientific materialism give meaning to our lives?’”

Even though Wilson shares Wright’s (and Krista’s) Southern Baptist upbringing, he seems to have completely avoided the same “residue.” Or at least, almost completely avoided it:

"Still, a funny thing happened a couple of years ago. Harvard was honoring Martin Luther King, Sr., and Reverend King, as part of the festivities, was preaching at the Harvard Memorial Chapel. Wilson, being a southerner, was invited to the service. There was a large turnout. The reverend preached fervently, and the congregation sang richly, and one of the hymns hit home with Wilson — ‘one of the good, old-timey ones that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid.’ Partway through it, E. O. Wilson — scientific materialist, detached empiricist, confirmed Darwinian — started crying.

As if in atonement, he has a perfectly rational explanation. ‘It was tribal,’ he says. ‘It was the feeling that I had been a long way away from the tribe.’”


Are You a Philo Fan?
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

Are you a Philo fan? Robert Wright is, as you can see in the video above.

Wright devotes a couple of chapters in The Evolution of God to exploring the Hellinistic Jewish philosopher’s influence on religious philosophy. Here, Wright illustrates his view that Philo helped give us both a morally and an intellectually modern God:

"…it’s worth taking a look at the ancient Abrahamic thinker who tried supremely to have it both ways: to see divinity abstractly, as a kind of logic running through history, yet to do so in a way that preserved the emotional satisfaction of traditional religion."

Quote from Philo
(photo: Andy Dayton)

My introduction to Philo came through a quote that’s posted on the desk of our managing producer: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” (a quote apparently often wrongly attributed to Plato or Socrates).

After hearing Wright talk about Philo, I’ve been digging around to learn more about this man who straddled two worlds, and why, though not widely accepted in his time, he holds resonance for ours. Are you a Philo fan?


From Building Blocks to Erector Sets

Shubha Bala, associate producer

"…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…"

Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.

He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).


Manifestations of the Living Earth
Trent Gilliss, online editor

"Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing."

The closing paragraph from Pooja Bhatia’s op-ed in today’s NYT courses with the pain of helplessness and suffering brought about by the recent earthquake that decimated this small island country. Bhatia’s questioning of God’s possible vindictive participation, or His absence, in nature’s destruction of human lives is a classic theological question.

Displaced Haitians Gather on Place Boyer in Petion-Ville
Displaced Haitians gather on Place Boyer in Petion-Ville to spend the night.
(photo: Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images)

Five years ago, the massive tsunamis that killed thousands of people, and displaced thousands more living in the low-lying areas of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans had struck. This question of “Where was God?” was being asked by many. We attempted to get at this issue with our show on the morality of nature — by looking at the history of seismic activity and its impacts through the field of Earth Sciences.

Map of Global Tectonic Plates

To this day, Jelle de Boer’s account of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 sticks with me, particularly his assessment of the aftereffects of the event and the musical tradition of fado. You can hear the show in the audio player above (or download here). Obviously, we can’t answer the theodicy question. But, hopefully, these scientific perspectives can both challenge and illuminate such religious questions as you read the latest news in Haiti.

The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.

—Professor Ellen van Wolde, an Old Testament scholar at Radboud University in The Netherlands. She claims the first sentence of Genesis is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew verb “bara” in the context of the Bible and other creation stories from Mesopatamia.

Translations of the Bible are debated and challenged all the time. In the case of the Creation story in Genesis, it’s often about the tense of the verb “create” and God’s role in the process that’s up for grabs. In a previous post, I compared three versions:

First, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,

And from Fox’s The Five Books of Moses:

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,

And now from the Tanakh:

When God began to create heaven and earth—

She says that the “bara” should not be translated as “to create” but “to spatially separate.” The impact of such a statement challenges the very notion that God created something out of nothing — and that humankind’s understanding of the story has been wrong for thousands of years.

Trent Gilliss, online editor


Darwin and Creation
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

This is the trailer for Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin that recently made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival. I noted the movie earlier in September partially because of the debate surrounding it. The film was having trouble finding a U.S. distributor, and its producer Jeremy Thomas stated it was "too controversial for religious America."

The film starts after the death of Darwin’s 10-year-old daughter, Annie, and focuses on the period where he wrote his seminal book on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species. According to the film’s synopsis, “Darwin is torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place.”

This made me think of Krista’s conversation with Darwin biographer James Moore for our program "Evolution and Wonder." At one point in the interview, Moore says about Darwin:

Always, I believe, until his dying day, at least half of him believed in God. He’d said he deserved to be called an agnostic. But he did make the point later in life that, “When I wrote The Origin of Species, my faith in God was as strong as that of a bishop.”

I’m interested to see how Creation's account of Darwin's life compares to Moore's: does it reflect the same understanding of Darwin and his struggle, or is it a slightly different story?

And, it looks like I won’t have to cross the border to find out. A few weeks ago the film was picked up by Newmarket Films for U.S. distribution. Interestingly enough, Newmarket was also the distributor for The Passion of the Christ — perhaps they’re well-equipped to handle a potentially controversial film.


God Has a Sense of Humor, Too

Krista Tippett, Host

In our interview for next week’s show, the very thoughtful scientist/author Jon Kabat-Zinn has intriguing and provocative things to say about the pressures and possibilities of aligning our “Stone Age minds” with 21st-century digital realities. But he also says: “This is far too serious to take too seriously.”

The most godly people I know have a sense of humor even about the most important things, and I’m convinced God does too. And that is my far too serious justification for posting two very funny Facebook takes on Passover and Easter, the holiest of holidays being observed simultaneously this week. Be blessed — and enjoy.